Is your “semiprivate” area in your home’s curtilage protected from prying eyes?
The Fourth Amendment protects all Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures. Courts define what that means everyday in terms of how far Fourth Amendment protections are extended. One case that raises an interesting issue is Cyde S. Bovat v. State of Vermont. This case may be heard by the United States Supreme Court as the defendant has filed a writ of certiorari.
The Question presented in Clyde S. Bovat v. State of Vermont was whether a police officer can access “semiprivate” areas within a home’s curtilage to conduct an investigation without a warrant.What happened in Clyde?
In Clyde S. Bovat v. State of Vermont, Clyde Bovat was convicted of shooting a deer in violation of Vermont big-game-hunting laws and failing to immediately tag the deer. Early on Thanksgiving morning of 2017, gunshots far too close to his home woke a Huntington, Vermont resident. He called the state game warden, suspecting illegal game hunting. Through their investigation, the wardens were led to Bovat’s property by properly obtained evidence.
The game wardens attempted to ask the Bovats about possible illegal hunting. The wardens then walked around the property, peeking into a detached garage through a small window. There, the warden “allegedly saw Bovat’s truck with what looked like blood and animal hair on it.” The warden returned to the home and spoke to Bovat’s wife to request permission to enter the garage. She refused. Quickly thereafter, the warden filed for a warrant to seize Bovat’s truck. After receiving the warrant, officers took samples of blood from the truck; the blood matched the blood from the deer in question.
What was the issue on appeal?
On appeal, Bovat argued that the trial court erred in denying his to suppress the evidence from the warrant. Bovat claimed that the evidence was “allegedly obtained in violation of his constitutional right to be free from warrantless government intrusions.”
In his appeal, Bovat claimed a few key issues that arose from the search and seizure based on the wardens peeking into his garage:
(1) his garage is within the curtilage of his home;
(2) his truck’s tailgate and license plate were not clearly visible from a lawful public vantage point; and
(3) the warden included false or misleading statements and material omissions in his affidavit in support of the search warrant which constituted a Franks violation.
Did the Vermont courts get it right?
In reviewing the trial court’s decision, the appellate court held that the detached garage was part of the curtilage of Bovat’s home, due to the close proximity to the home and the garage being used for domestic purposes. Curtilage is defined as the “area immediately surrounding a dwelling, and it counts as part of the home for many legal purposes.”
However, the appellate court ruled that because the officers could see the truck parked inside the garage through a small window, the evidence was in the wardens’ plain view. Therefore, it held the trial court did not err in allowing the evidence from the search.
The court explained: “Here, while the garage itself is a private area that the police would not have been justified to enter without a warrant, the wardens restricted their movements to defendant’s driveway, a semiprivate area, where they observed what they believed to be incriminating evidence on defendant’s truck. Because the wardens observed the truck from a legal vantage point, the first part of the plain-view exception is met.”
Bovat’s Fourth Amendment arguments
In Bovat’s petition for a writ of certiorari, he relied on Florida v. Jardines, a case where the Supreme Court of the United States held that law enforcement officers’ use of a drug-sniffing dog on the front porch of a home to investigate an unverified tip of illegal marijuana cultivation within a home was actually trespass of a curtilage. That the trespass constituted a “search” for Fourth Amendment purposes, and that the officers had neither an explicit nor implied license for investigating the curtilage. Therefore, this was an unlawful search violating the Fourth Amendment.
Unlike Florida v. Jardines though, the Court found that the Fourth Amendment did not attach because the warden was conducting a legitimate police investigation into a semiprivate area—even if that semiprivate area was part of the curtilage—and the evidence obtained was in plain view. The Court did not reach the merits of Bovat’s argument.
The Court affirmed the trial court’s decision.
What does this mean for Massachusetts?
In Massachusetts, a house receives Fourth Amendment protections. The surrounding area, the curtilage, includes the dwelling and extends to the areas around the house. Curtilage may also include the area in domestic use within immediate proximity to that dwelling—that “usually, but not always, is fenced in with the dwelling.
Side yards in Massachusetts
In Commonwealth v. Leslie, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Sufolk, citing Jardine, concluded that the side yard of a three-family home was part of a curtilage. Therefore, that side yard was protected from warrantless searches. In Leslie, the Court held that “the warrantless intrusion into this constitutionally protected area was an unreasonable search that violated the defendants’ Federal and State constitutional rights.”
Importantly, in Bovat, the Court held that the garage was part of the curtilage of the dwelling. However, the driveway and pathways around the home’s curtilage were actually a “semiprivate area.” This semiprivate status allows the wardens onto those pathways to conduct an investigation.
Enclosed porches in Massachusetts
In Commonwealth v. Pietrass, another related case, evidence obtained was excluded because officers “lacked exigent circumstances justifying their warrantless entry of an unlocked dwelling.” Officers entered an enclosed porch. Through a window, the officers saw certain clothing that justified a search warrant. However, the Court stated that the trial judge needed to make factual findings about the function of the porch to the dwelling if the suspect had an expectation of privacy and whether the suspect was lawfully in the house. That expectation hinged on the nature of the observations of the police through the window.
The court held that probable cause to search might still be shown on this basis, if the police were rightfully on the porch. If the porch were one that a visitor would naturally expect to pass through to gain access to the front door, then it would not be part of the “curtilage” entitled to Fourth Amendment protection, and if the porch door were the real front door of the house, the search would begin when the police stepped inside the porch.
Backyards in Massachusetts
In Massachusetts, even a backyard without public access can be considered part of a protected curtilage. When police executed a warrantless search of a premises and found a briefcase containing drugs and money in a backyard, police still did not have access to that protected curtilage. Because the public had no access to the backyard, the Court noted that in Commonwealth v. Straw, that the enclosed back yard in which the thrown briefcase landed was part of the curtilage of the defendant’s home and was subject to the same protection as the home itself. This case should be used to clarify that the Fourth Amendment does protect semi-private areas of the home.
Interested in reading more?
You can read about Franks and the search and seizure violations here: https://casetext.com/analysis/search-and-seizure-franks-v-delaware
You can read about Florida v. Jardines and the trespass of curtilage here: https://www.oyez.org/cases/2012/11-564
You can read the Clyde opinion here: https://law.justia.com/cases/vermont/supreme-court/2019/2018-362.html
What is curtilage? Here is the legal definition: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/curtilage
What is plain view? Here is the legal definition: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/plain_view_doctrine